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Posted by on Feb 5, 2013 in Book / Film Review | 17 comments

Les Miserables – A Skeptical Review

You would have to be a cultural hermit not to realise that the film production of the famous Victor Hugo book and resulting musical has recently hit our cinema screens to largely rapturous welcome.

Largely. Not exclusively.

So, a review:

Singing: Great

Production values / sets etc: Brilliant

Acting: Briliiant

Emotional heartstring-pulling: Sob

Yada yada. It’s a ride full of ups and downs and it is, for most intents and purposes, a really good film.

BUT

And that is a massive skeptical but (I like big buts..). Every review in the Uk which I have listened to or read fails to mention, even in passing, the central, incredibly blatantly obvious, theme which runs through the film like a heard of stampeding buffalo. That being religion, and more accurately, salvation through the Christian God. We have themes of religious interpretation (justice and law-like regulation defined biblically vs mercy through second chances and forgiveness).

I will painstakingly go through the story like this:

Bloke 1 (Hugh Jackman) in prison for stealing bread, ends up incarcerated for 20 years. Bloke 2 (Russell Crowe) releases him, giving him his papers. Bloke 1 is taken in by a church priesty bloke. Bloke 1 steals church silver and runs away. He is caught and returned to priesty bloke. Policey blokes want him locked up, priesty bloke says he let him have it all, and gave him another 2 candelsticks as well. Bloke 1 realises priesty bloke has shown mercy through God, decides to change his life, dedicating it to being a decent chap in the name of God, though throws his papers away, runs off and reinvents himself.

STOP.

God is forgiveness. God is hope. God is good deeds.

CARRY ON.

Fastforward X years and less facial hair, bloke 1 is mayor of a town. Bloke 2 becomes police chief and recognises him. Papers check out just fine. Bloke 1 has lass 1 (Ann Hathaway) working for him in his factory. She gets sacked by his foreman bloke. She goes from pure decent lass to dirty, pulled out teeth, hair cut off, prostitute lass. She has been trying to send money to her child looked after somewhere else. Bloke 1 comes across her being beaten, helps her. She ends up in hospital dying. Bloke 1 on her death bed can’t believe what he has let happen. Zoiks! She dies but tells him of her child. Bloke 2 arrives and definitely knows this bloke 1 is the missing parole papers man. Bloke 1 runs off again to lass 2, lass 1’s daughter, being looked after by pub landlady lass (Helena Bonham-Carter) and pub landlord bloke (Sacha Baron-Cohen). Takes young lass 2 as his own daughter.

STOP.

Possible inference that secular pub type people have much less morality as they cavort around the pub nicking stuff off people in comedy uplifting section. Not being defined by divine morality, they are the pits, popping up randomly throughout the rest of the film for comedy effect.

CARRY ON.

Bloke 1 runs off with lass 2 chased by bloke 2 again. Finds shelter in church. Again.

STOP.

God = good. Again. Shelters those in need etc etc. Bloke 2 is actually following this guy out of divine duty, just a wildly different interpretation of God’s word to bloke 1 and priesty bloke.

CARRY ON.

Bloke 1 pisses off to Paris where lass 2 grows up into a fine young woman. Lass 2 falls in love in 5 seconds flat with some rich lefty-socialist bloke (son of aristocrat, Eddi Redmayne). Rich lefty-socialist bloke is involved with the second thrust of the French Revolution and has lots of lefty-socialist mates, from middle-class intellects (as he is) to street kids to poor people. Vive La France and all that. However, it appears that these lefty-socialist blokes sing rather a lot about God.

STOP.

Eh? WTF? Enlightenment ideals are supposed to have influenced the French Revolution to the tune of movement towards separating church and state. What the biblical madness are these lefties doing cavorting around singing about God? This is ridiculous! There also seems to be religious iconography on every wall. Crosstastic.

CARRY ON.

Bloke 2 is somehow the head of the army-police blokes. He gets around. He notices bloke 1 again and chases him. “Why, if it wasn’t for those pesky baguettes, I would’ve had him!” So rich lefty-socialist bloke and lass 2 fall in love and there is some kind of revolutionary battle involving lots of furniture in the street and guns. And singing. bloke 1 and 2 get involved, and all the lefty-socialist blokes get killed apart form rich lefty-socialist bloke. Bloke 2 fails again to apprehend bloke 1 and, in the process, bloke 1 shows mercy and allows bloke 2 to run off without being executed by lefties. Bloke 2 commits suicide since he can’t compute.

STOP.

God, mercy, goodness yada yada. But then bloke 2 shows that a legalistic approach, through absolute morality and judgement, to morality is defied and contradicted by this equally divine sounding approach to morality rooted in forgiveness, which leads to salvation upon judgement, through God.

CARRY ON.

Rich lefty-socialist bloke survives wounding, being saved by bloke 1 (more salvation). Rich-lefty socialist bloke marries lass 2. In a fricking mansion full of rich people.

STOP.

EH? I mean, really, WHAT? This is getting stupid! Where are the socialist ideals? What is this film about? He runs back to rich family and gets married at an ostentatious wedding scant weeks after all of his mates died in a revolution about social equality and justice. This amounts to thematic absurdity.

CARRY ON.

Rich lefty-socialist bloke and lass 2 run off randomly from wedding to find bloke 1, who had crawled off like an elephant, to die in secret, at a church. Loads of singing about salvation and God again. He dies and goes straight to heaven, escorted by an angelic lass 1 who has reappeared out of the ether. The film ends as everyone in the film appears to be standing on top of a randomly assorted furniture barricade in the middle of Paris, waving flags at no one. All seem to be there apart from bloke 2, it appears.

STOP.

Shit me. What? So now the film degenerates into Christian propaganda. God=mercy=salvation=good deeds=church=God=crosses on walls=singing about God=flag waving. The themes are so insanely out of context and mismarried as to give me a minor coronary in the cinema. Heaven seems to be a place where you can stand up in adversary, and community in flag-waving pride, to no one, since heaven will have no social injustice and baddies. All the lefties are happy God-fearing, singing heavenites.

Now, to me, left-wing revolutions with Enlightenment ideals and aspects of freedom of religion don’t generally have their proponents sing the praises of religion. However, this film, and probably the book and musical (I don’t know), seemed to be a thinly-veiled hurrah! to the realm of religion. In fact, it appeared that the whole reality of pain, suffering, torment and struggle was all justified by the prospect of a flag-waving sing-a-long in a rather bizarre heaven. This appears to be the antithesis of what the revolution ACTUALLY stood for.

I loved so much of the film, but felt let down by the rather obvious bludgeneoning around my frontal cortex with a musical bible. The film was actively marketed to huge effect and success to the Christian audiences in the US. How come our critics over here seem to ignore the film’s most obvious theme?

Well, the answer to that is that religion is simply not on the radar of 99.9% of the UK population. My partner watched the film the night before with her daughter and came to watch it with me the next night. She didn’t notice ANY religious symbolism the first time. It did not even register. The God-radar is simply not turned on. But to someone like me, a moany lefty heatheny type, I felt like I was being indoctrinated. This is why our critics haven’t mentioned it – religion is so absent from the social psyche in the UK that they don’t even recognise religion when it hits them round the face like a large, wet, Monty Pythonesque halibut.

Film – 9/10 for everything else.

1/10 for themes.

Overall score – a skeptical 5/10

[EDIT – some lyrics from the final song:

VALJEAN
Alone, I wait in the shadows
I count the hours
‘Till I can sleep
I dreamed a dream
Cosette stood by
It made her weep
To know I die
Alone, at the end of the day
Upon this wedding night I pray
Take these children, my lord
To thy embrace
And show them grace.
God up high,
Hear my prayer
Take me now
To thy care
Where you are
Let me be
Take me now
Take me there
Bring me home
Bring me home

FANTINE
Monsieur I bless your name

VALJEAN
I am ready Fantine!

FANTINE
Monsieur, lay down your burden

VALJEAN
At the end of my days

FANTINE
You’ve raised my child with love

VALJEAN
She’s the best of my life

FANTINE
And you shall be with God

COSETTE
Papa, papa, I do not understand
Are you all right?
They said you’d gone away

VALJEAN
Cosette, my child
Thank god, thank god
I’ve lived to see this day

MARIUS
It’s you who must forgive a thoughtless fool
It’s you who must forgive a thankless man
It’s thanks to you that I am living
Again I lay down my life at your feet
Cosette, your father is a saint
When they wounded me
He took me from the barricade
Carried like a babe
And brought me home
To you

VALJEAN (to COSETTE)
now you are here
Again beside me
now I can die in peace
for now my life is blessed…

COSETTE
You will live, Papa, you’re going to live
It’s too soon, too soon to say goodbye!

VALJEAN
Yes, Cosette, forbid me now to die
I’ll obey
I will try.
On this page
I write my last confession
read it well
when I, at last, am sleeping

It’s a story
Of one who turned from hating,
A man who only learned to love
When you were in his keeping.

FANTINE
Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you
Lord in Heaven
Look down on him in mercy.

VALJEAN
forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.

VALJEAN, FANTINE, EPONINE
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
And remember
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.

CHORUS
do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
and the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare;
they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
and all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes…
Tomorrow comes!

Er, a lot of God talk.]

  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

    Nice job of this! Would I be too annoyed to watch this movie or not? That is the question.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      That’s a good question, John. If you can put theology aside, it’s cracking. But when you’ve been in the game this long, that’s hard to do!

  • Vic

    Why was the focus so much on the supposedly Christian undertones of the movie when Russel Crowe’s singing is the surest argument against the existence of god I ever heard? D:

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Excellent analysis, and very funny! But I have to say, somehow to my surprise, the religious thrust of the movie hasn’t caught much attention here in the US, either. My guess is, movie goers and critics alike are so absorbed by the artistic, musical, and romantic sides of the movie that they have failed to notice the religious themes as well as historical inaccuracies and ideological inconsistencies altogether.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks. all the typos now sorted, and with the lyrics to a nutty religious song at the end.

  • ThePrussian

    It’s strongly suggest you read the book.  It is a masterpiece of Enlightenment fiction. 

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      I know that Hugo started off a committed Catholic and ended up a self identified freethinker – what stage of his life did he write it?

  • RebeccaBradley

    Jonathan, your plot-summary left me weak with laughter. :-D

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Why, thank you madam!

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    This is hilarious!  I have no interest in seeing the movie.  I read the book 40 years ago and no longer remember much about it.  I don’t think it was this steeped in religion though.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NZMJ7JRYKH7WR6YTXJGG3PU65E John Grove

    Sorry to go off subject but I thought this was rather good. You want to know the difference between an atheist and a ‘new atheist’

    http://gspellchecker.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/old-atheists-vs-new-atheists-600×334.jpeg

  • sir_russ

    I have an even more skeptical review of Les Mis 2012.

    I think it was horrible.  I have no doubts that it will take some Academy Awards since much of that selection process is politicized propaganda, but it failed miserably at transforming what is a true masterpiece written specifically for the strengths and weaknesses of the stage into anything close to that for the big screen.

    Throw tens of millions of dollars at a project and you can get the glitz.  You can buy outstanding quality in the mechanical parts of a production – costumes, sound, properties, photography, and so forth – and you can by big name box office draws like Crow, Jackman, Hathaway and Hooper, but what is far more difficult to come by, and is missing in Les Mis 2012, is the artist who can bond all these mosaic components into one masterful whole.  This work of the artist was supposed to be Hooper’s task here, and it was a Herculean task, to be sure, but he did not just fail to hit the bulls-eye, he missed the target entirely.   Though this was monumental directorial undertaking, what Hooper was expected to do on this project was more straightforward for Les Mis 2012 than it was for The King’s Speech, for which he won an Oscar.  Did he need to concern himself with the storyline?  No.  Hugo’s story has stood up over time.  Did he need to be bothered about the music itself?  No.  The smashing success of the 25-year long run(and still going strong) of the stage production made that a non-issue.  Hooper’s failure came in the only two areas that mattered for this film: what did you see and how was this masterfully-crafted music to be delivered to the movie-goer.

    Anyone who has heard this music knows that it is so strong, poignant, so elicitable of our deepest emotions,  that one can be move to tears with closed eyes.  Knowing this, Hooper should have been following the medical doctor’s mantra of first do no harm.  Instead, it’s as if Hooper decided to improve Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” by pasting on a few hand-cut stars of his own.

    As an example take “On My Own,”  a truly stirring piece about unrequited love, sung by the character Eponine.  Samantha Barks plays the part in the movie and is currently a member of one of the Les Mis stage companies.  Here she is singing “On My Own” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNmgtkp6FGw).  Listen to it without watching to understand how nothing is gained by seeing it being sung.  The director’s choices for how to present this music in the movie, however, were up-close, and personal.  So up-close and personal, in fact, that he stopped just short of showing us medical diagnostic images of her vocal chords.  So up-close and personal that it only served to diminish the music.  And, sadly, much of the movie was structured the same way.  This is what the director, Hooper, chose as the visual accompaniment for this great music.  The song ends with Eponine’s admission, I love him,  I love him, I love him, But only on my own, and I, the movie-goer was made to feel like a creepy interloper as this gifted vocalist and stage performer strained to pervert the music and her forty-foot wide facial expressions to realize Hooper’s failed vision.  Her contorted face was nothing compared to the original music itself at expressing the pain of one-way love, love that is only on one’s own.  If this music was not already known to the world, this film would still fail on this account alone, but at least then the music would not already be a well-established and beloved work of art being abused, bruised and battered.  The imagery detracts from the music so strongly that I think many seeing the movie, but who are otherwise unfamiliar with the music, will come away asking, “What’s so great about Les Miserables?  Why all the hoopla?  I don’t get it.”

    Throughout the movie the music has been demoted to a prop or at best a supporting role behind absolutely enormous tear-laden, quivering, trembling, faces painted in effusive sentimentality which is best explained by the lead performers not having the vocal chops to sing the parts.  You pay big money upfront for names, like Crowe, Jackman, and Hathaway, and, then, when you realize that the name is not accompanied by the requisite singing ability you substitute sappiness, choked sobs, and self-conscious emotionalism outrageously depicted in overwhelming closeups interspersed with unsuitable stretches of computer generated graphical flybys, swoops, pans and panoramas.  You try to avert attention from a tangible lack of vocal talent with totally inappropriate over-expressiveness and work-a-day graphical distractions.  “Jackman’s a big name, but he can’t sing for shit.  Let’s fly up around the church steeple, that’ll fix it.”  “Russell Crowe almost singlehandedly assures box office success but he has the vocal range of middle C, so let’s make him appear to be precariously perched high up on a tower while we swoop around him.”

    I could go on for a long time, but I’ve outlined my take on this abysmally executed film. 

    If you want to experience the greatness of Les Miserables, save your pennies, see the stage version, and you will yourself be far less miserable.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Interesting Russ, although the flipside, as Mark Kermode, the ultimate film critic (in the UK) pointed out, Hooper had to do that.

      The theory goes that Hooper had to differentiate the film from the musical to give it a different flavour and its own niche. The stage offers the midshot – the mid-range vision of the story – the audience is too far away to see close-ups and is never able to see long-range shots. So Hooper chose to use this in the film. He differentiated the cinematography from the mid-range aspect of the theatre production.

      This means that he concentrated on soaring long-range shots which zoomed in from the aerial position to close-ups. And he concentrated on close-ups to help emphasise the poverty and dirt.

      Strangely enough, I thought this worked, and liked this approach, but I have not seen the musical or read the book.

      As I said above, I like the production values, just not the exposition of themes.

      • sir_russ

        Is Kermode really the ultimate UK film critic?  For me he is himself far too great a performer to have his assessments relied on as useful film criticism.  He makes you want to see even the films he likes the least.  I think a film critic should be able to steer you away from ticket money badly spent, but I don’t think Kermode can do this for me.  He’s a showman par excellence.  He has such stage presence that I watch him for him, not so much for his critiques.

        Concerning Les Miserables I haven’t read any of Kermode’s thoughts on it, but I did see his video review of it.  In the video I missed his mentioning the film carving out its own niche.  But, the movie is a movie.  It would be it’s own niche even if it was only a more intimate filming of the stage production.

        I agree with you about the Christian “product placement” in the film, but there is little of that in the stage version.  It’s hard to have the song “Bring Him Home” without mentioning God, being that “God” is the first word of the song, but other than that one is left only with a sense that Christianity is important to the context of the story Hugo wrote.  The movie really churches the thing up.

        As far as using closeups to highlight the poverty, the dirt, the hopelessness and despair, I wonder how many of the millions of people who have seen the stage production have missed all these undesirable things lacking as they were in closeup visuals.  I’ll bet very few given that the music frequently refers and alludes to the agonies of an impoverished life.  The tears at a stage performance of Les Miserable(not les pauvres) are real and they come from those seated in the house, not those on stage.  For me, Jonathan, a woman could be impeccably dressed and inviting in appearance, but if she then sells her body, her teeth and her hair to support her child, cinematic closeups will not do justice to the depth of her poverty.  Whatever is it that has kept the stage production going so strongly for so long, it obviously is not the closeups.

        Another of the reasons I’m as hard on the film as I am is that Hooper never misses an opportunity to beat and pound and bludgeon you with the idea of the moment.  The viewer was not allowed to fully grasp the circumstances of the moment before being hammered again.  The emotional pacing, letting empathy kick in, is important to such an emotionally intensive production.  That seemed to be lost on Hooper.  I watched it in a filled theater and there were no gentle sobs from the audience.  There wasn’t time with every instant bombarding you with visual or auditory input.  I heard one couple discussing how exhausted the film made them while the stage play had not(but, then, the play would have an intermission, eh?).

        I simply disagree with you about Les Mis 2012 being all that good a film.

        One thing I think you missed concerning the savior and religion allusions was Jean Valjean lifting and carrying “the cross” in the opening scene.

        Cheers

         

        • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          Hey Russ

          Another of the reasons I’m as hard on the film as I am is that Hooper never misses an opportunity to beat and pound and bludgeon you with the idea of the moment.  The viewer was not allowed to fully grasp the circumstances of the moment before being hammered again.

          I have heard that (I think Kermode mentioned it) and it is a salient point, for sure.

          And I can’t believe I didn’t get that whole cross / mast analogy at the beginning. What an epic miss! 

          • sir_russ

            Regarding the religion themes, I hope that people seeing this show have the good sense to ask, “Where the hell is God doing anything here?”

            Innocent child Cosette abused until rescued from situation.
            Thenardier’s scheming and thieving and deceiving without consequence.
            Jean Valjean dubiously imprisoned for much of his life, and then on the run for most of the rest of it.
            Our moralist, Javert, showing cruelty and a lack of compassion throughout.
            And, how could it be construed that Fantine benefited at all from her “God in heaven”?

            To me this show strives in vain to associate the God of Christianity with anything good.

            My hope is that viewers of Les Mis 2012 will come away thinking that Hugo outlined a world where the actions of a god are notably missing, and, if they consider the world today they will realize that God is just as absent today.

  • Matthew Abel

    While I found the tail-end somewhat annoying what with a literal portrayal of Heaven, I found the movie as a whole entirely well-fitting with a skeptical view.  ValJean’s life changes when a man takes mercy on him – and while that man’s motivations are clearly because of God, it is also made very clear that it is the man who shows the mercy.

    From that point on the only one responsible for ValJean’s actions is ValJean.  He alone must make the choices for his life and face the consequences.  He chooses to act through mercy and love and that is what makes the difference.  It is not a popular view given the marketing, but I found the movie’s opinion of faith to be fairly negative.